Sang-sol (pronounced as sāŋsöl) or incense offering is an integral part of the propitiation of gods/protective deities among Tibetan people. From the historical perspective, it appears to be a preliminary part in the rite of inviting gods/deities in removal of defilements within the human world. Commentary of Yangtse (of Bon), while narrating the descend of Nyatri Tsanpo from heaven, mentions that a trio of Bon priests were also sent along to clean defilements and great sickness of the human realm by offering sang. This testifies to the fact that the practice of removing impurity by burning incense had been there in Tibetan civilization from the earliest times.
During the reign of King Trisong Deutsan in 8th century AD, there was a wide dissemination of Buddhism, which overshadowed Bon. Nevertheless, the practice of propitiating gods/deities and sang offering that originated from Bon did not disappear with its moderation. On the contrary, Guru Padmasambhava brought under oath major divinities such as Yarlha Shampo and Thanglha Yarzhun and Tenma Chunyi, and appointed them protector deities of Tibet. Furthermore, when building Samye Monastery he commanded four great deity kings to enter into human beings to forecast future events. Bazhed and Kathang among others mention that propitiation gods/deities and sang offering gained further popularity in Tibet henceforth.
King Trisong Deutsan himself practiced the ritual to a fault. An elaborate festival popularly called Zamling Chisang or the World Incense-offering Day was instituted. On the fifteenth of the fifth Tibetan month the entire people of Lhasa gathered to offer sang on the terraces of temples, near rivers and lakes, and on hills. This was a thanksgiving offering initiated by Trisong over the successful completion of Samye, the first monastery built in Tibet. At the summit of Hepo-ri Mountain a large amount of incense was piled and the fragrant smoke rising from it enveloped the entire horizon. The day was thus christened Zamling Chisang. Gyalpo Kathang or The Account of the Kings, while recounting the celebration, mentions that the aromatic smoke of frankincense (poekar) filled the sky.
Zamling Chisang was successively practiced until the King Lang Dharma restrained the spread of Buddhism. It was, however, revived during the time of the Great 5th Dalai Lama and continues to celebrate to this day. In this way the practice of Lhasol Sang-sol or propitiation of gods/deities and incense burning flourished.
Over the centuries while Bon slowly became less known as propagation of Buddhism became stronger, there have been various changes in the practice of propitiating gods/deities and sang-sol. Bon elements were gradually replaced with Buddhist ones. In the divinities to be propitiated, for instance, the main focus shifted from the worldly spirits in Bon tradition to multitude of Buddhist oath-bound doctrine protectors. Bon priests officiating gods/deities in fostering positive side of life were substituted by Buddhist tantrics or monks. Furthermore, over and above the dominant Bon focus of propitiating gods/deities and sang offering which were for long life, growth of power, influence, luck and victory over human and non-human adversaries, added emphasis was given on wellbeing in the after life and increasing of merits etc.
However, for majority of the ordinary Tibetans physical attributes of going about propitiating gods/deities, raising prayer-flags, burning incense, circumambulating mountains and holy places adhere very much to the ancient norms. Ordinary folks offer incense and hoist prayer-flag as much to increase the welfare and fortune in this life as to accumulate merit, which in turn brings about a better rebirth in the next.
Relation between Propitiation and Statecraft
According to ancient Bon history, each ruler of Namgyi Tri Dun (Seven Throne-holders of the Sky) had a ku-bon or an attendant priest, whose responsibility was to propitiate gods/deities, to subjugate malevolent spirits, to look after the health of the ruler and to ensure that the statecraft flourished. Since then propitiation of ku-lha or the ruler's protective deity, it appears, was considered a vital aspect of the kingship. An unimpeachable historical account testifying to this exists on stone inscription of Dhemo in Kongpo.
"… White Brother [has] since [his] father’s death propitiated the ku-lha (personal God/deity) of the two brothers; ku-lha became friend with Dhemo. As for other gods/deities of father, [he] performed rites touching even his own life; [and his] statecraft rose high; the crown on the head was firm…"
For both Bon and Buddhist faiths, the crucial factor determining the rise and fall of the polity was linked to which God/deity was worshiped. Ancient accounts clearly testifies to the fact that in the public perception from the earliest times in Tibet, the act of propitiating gods is looked upon as a determining factor in the rise and decline of statecraft.
In all stages of Tibetan history, the habit of propitiating gods/deities and invoking them especially in times of warfare existed. The well-known epic Gesar contains thousand of challenge-songs, as preludes to confrontations, all of which are odes or calls to the gods/deities in whom the fighter reposed his faith. At crucial points in the battle, it is to be heard that victory ensued through the potency of the victor's gods/deities. This also enables us to satisfactorily explain the rationale behind the propitiation of gods/deities and sang offerings when clans or groups clashed in warfare against each other in ancient Tibet.
The practice of propitiating and seeking oracular pronouncements from divinities or deities who descend into humans, originated in Tibet from the time of Guru Padmasambhava. In the lower part of the 17th century AD, Tibetan Government also began to propitiate doctrine protectors or State Oracles such as Nechung Choekyong, Lamo Tsangpa, Tseu Marpo of Samye, Tenma of Drepung and Gadong. Crucial government actions relating to war and religion were submitted to them in the form of Lungzhu or seeking pronouncement. The divinities' lungten or oracular pronouncements were taken as binding. It is still being practiced today, though only matters regarding religious affairs are consulted.
On the third day of each month Tsesum Zabsol, literately meaning offerings made to protective deities on the third day of the month, used to be held. The Kalons or cabinet ministers arrived at Nechung Monastery to propitiate and seek pronouncements on various matters. There was also the practice of zimchung chendren or invitation of Nechung and other oracles to the residence of the Dalai Lama. In short, in the middle of the 20th century numerous state affairs pertaining to polity, religion and warfare were consulted to protector deities, and their pronouncements were taken as the basis for decision. This certainly was a rare phenomenon in the objective world.
Apart from these, propitiation of gods/deities and sang offering were held regularly during official programs of the Tibetan government. Each summer and winter, all government officials assembled in the Cathedral in Lhasa. Amidst smoke billowing like clouds, monks of Meru Monastery chanted the propitiation accompanied by serene sounds of religious music.
One of the most special occasions for Tibetans is the celebration of the tenth of the fifth month of the year of Monkey, which comes once in twelve years. This is the birthday of Guru Padmasambhava. Since the lha (gods/deities), klu (nag spirits), and zidag (owner of the region) of Tibet were bound in oath by Padmasambhava, this day is considered divine. The Dalai Lama, accompanied by the entire government officials, traditionally used to visit Nechung Monastery. The state mediums, including Tenma, Gadong and others also had to be present.
With the Dalai Lama on the throne in Nechung Monastery, the mediums took seats in the assembly hall according to their ranks. Led by monks of Nechung Drayang Ling the deities were invoked with chants and music. As they went into trance, the piercing shouts Ki hi hi! and Lha Sol-lo! from the guards combined with the sound of hundred drums and cymbals, blare of kanglings, and resounding baritone of chants created an illusion of the sky being rented apart in that small mountain corner. It was a rare sight hardly to be seen in today’s world where materialism overwhelms spiritualism.
Propitiation of Deities and Incense Offering
Tibet is situated on the roof of the world. Its surroundings, in all cardinal and intermediate directions, are dotted with continuous flow of mountain ranges. While traversing these mountains the travelers reach at la-tse or the passes, where there are heaps of stones piled by all those who cross them. Prayer flags flutter upon them tied on decorated poles. Travellers get down from horses, put on sleeves of chupa and hats are taken off as deference to the God/deity of la-tse. Prayer-flags, khata or traditional scarves, fresh pieces of cloth or clean cotton and wool are tied to poles, sang is burned, and tsampa and butter are sprinkled while reciting:
“May there be no hindrance on the path; may the mission be accomplished; may those who see us off be the same ones who welcome us when we return.”
Everyone present picks up a handful of tsampa, faces the la-tse and shout in unison, Swa! Swa! Swa! (Swift! Swift! Swift!) three times and Ki Ki Swa Swa Lha Gyal Lo! (Victory to Gods!) in loud thundering voices as tsampa is tossed into the sky. This is called drawing the lha-gyal. Travelers then resume their journey.
Aspiration is that the God/deity of la-tse restrains the malevolent spirits who followed the travelers and bestow favors on them so that their missions are fulfilled.
Likewise, before crossing rivers, which are often perilous and violent, in boats sang is offered at the bank. Prayer-flags are tied around a wooden horse head in front of the boat, blessed grains are tossed into the sky, and fervent prayers are recited to prevent the boat from capsizing.
Yul-lha or deity of the region whether in towns, villages, and nomadic camps are represented by rten or small house of deity, generally located on rooftops or hills. Deities are propitiated by offering incense on important and auspicious days such as Losar (Tibetan New Year), da-sol (monthly propitiation), or new endeavors like matrimonial alliances, or when sickness befalls people and animals. Manner of sang offering and hoisting of prayer-flags is same as it is done on la-tse.
Raising of prayer-flags and sang offering on the third day of Losar is done either collectively or individually. This is, perhaps, one of the biggest incense burning occasions. Each family in their fineries gather for the incense offering and hoisting of prayer-flag in all pomp and show. After the incense offering, they do traditional gorshe or circle-dance many times.
During the marriage ceremony when a bride is sought for the son, the entire family gathers on the terrace on an astrologically predicted day to propitiate the deities and to burn incense. With a touch of the bride's hands prayer-flags are hoisted on the rten. This is lha-dog or tying divinity, meaning that from this day onward she has become a member of the family.
If a daughter is given away as a bride, she returns for a reunion to her parental house after a year. On an auspicious day during her sojourn the family gathers on the terrace. The daughter touches the prayer-flags and installs them while incense is being burned. This is lha-drol or untying divinity, meaning from that day onwards she is regarded as a member of her new family. These and many other ceremonial rituals appear to be remnants from family customs within a clanship in early times in Tibetan history.
The practice of worshiping mountains and rivers, and offering sang to them is widespread in Tibet. Mountain worship involves propitiating mountain and hills reputed to be dwelling places of gods/deities. A family member generally ascends the mountain at night or at early dawn with prayer-flags and sang so that fragrant smoke of juniper billows from the mountaintop at sunrise.
Chu/water-sang is performed near big rivers by tying prayer-flags on nearby trees or erecting flag-poles as thick puffs of smoke from sang billowed along the course of the river. Some people burn incense in pots and wooden containers, and let them float along the river as the wind waft smoke in the opposite direction.
In some regions during elaborate public sang offering, the men folks burst into lyrical and colorful songs. The central themes of these fustian elucidations are paeans to gods/deities, ode to the beauty of mountains and rivers, revelation on the breed of horses, weapons and so on. For example, during the elaborate propitiations of the State Oracles by Tibetan Government, there were genres of fustian commentarial such as Zim-mag-gi Bae-shoepa (Bluster of the Body Guards), Nyapa Lhasol-ghyi Shaepa (Commentarial of the Fishermen's Call to Gods) in Nyingtri region of Kongpo, Ta-lu Tashi Gutseg (The Nine-fold Song of Horsemanship) in Tamshul in Lhokha etc.
The main ingredients of sang are species of shrubs and trees that have fragrant smell such as juniper (shugpa), rhododendron (bhalu), cypress (khemba) and frankincense (poekar). The more refined ones complement with white and red sandalwood (tsendan kar-mar), myrobalan (arura), saffron (ghurgum), nardostachys grandiflower (pangpoe) etc. The flour added on the sang is tsampa or roasted-barley flour mixed with butter. The more enthusiastic ones add three-whites i.e. curd, milk and butter, three-sweets i.e. sugar, molasses and honey, and powdered medicinal herbs. Some even sprinkle the first serving of tea and chang into the burning incense.
Tibetan custom and practice of propitiating gods/deities and incense offering given here is a generic illustration drawn principally from central Tibet. However, except some minor differences in respective regions, the fundamental belief, ideas, and the ritual procedures are the same all over Tibet.
The Gnostic Store (a non-profit organization benefitting Glorian Publishing) offers traditional natural incense handmade by Tibetans.